How to Run a Non-Linear Game You Can Be Proud Of

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Treasure Map PictureWho remembers the old PC game ‘Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall’? It caused me to spend way too much time glued to my computer screen when I should have been doing my homework. For me, the allure was the non-linear nature of the game. There was a core plotline and related quests, but you could spend hundreds of hours happily ignoring that part of the game while exploring the countless dungeons, towns, and ruins across the continent of Tamriel.

You can take a non-linear approach to DMing, too. Rather than running your party through a pre-planned sequence of encounters, non-linear campaigns involve drawing up a rich and vibrant world, and then setting the PCs loose to explore it.

If this sounds daunting, well… it can be. Some DMs get nervous when they imagine their PCs running amok through the world. But non-linear campaigns don’t have to be exercises in chaos. With a little management and a lot of creativity, they can be loads of fun.

Non-Linear Campaigns are Fun – for Some Players

If your players enjoy adventure and exploration, they might enjoy a non-linear campaign. This is especially true if they’re seasoned gamers. After twenty years of being forced down linear quest paths, some players enjoy the chance to explore a world on their own terms.

On the other hand, brand new players might need more guidance than a non-linear game provides. Some players really enjoy linear plotlines and the sense of accomplishment they get after each encounter. Your players’ preferences should dictate the type of game you run; after all, you’re running it for them.

So if your PC party is choosing where to go and when, how will you know what to plan for? That brings us to the next fact about non-linear games.

Non-Linear Campaigns are Easy – for Some DMs

There are two approaches you can take when running a non-linear campaign. Your first option is to create a fully fleshed-out world full of NPCs, towns, dungeons, factions, and encounters. Wherever your party decides to go, you’ll have an idea of who they’re going to interact with, which quests will be offered to them, and what sorts of hazards they’ll face. This sort of campaign runs a lot like a non-digital MMORPG. If you’re really into world-building and don’t mind all the prep work, you could try this approach.

But maybe you’re the type of DM who likes to wing it. If you’ve got a quick wit and a love for improvisation, you can dodge a lot of pre-game preparation. Armed with outlines of your world and your central plotline, you can fill in the other details on the fly. Just make sure to take note of all the places and personas your party encounters; players get frustrated when they plan their actions based on the details you gave them last session, only to find that those details have changed by the next session.

How to Keep the Party Together

So what happens when your paladin wants to charge into a dungeon, your cleric wants to visit a temple, and your fighter wants to engage in some drunken shenanigans at the local pub? Some DMs make a house rule that requires the party members to stay together no matter what. Others work out a compromise. For example, the PCs can split up in town to take care of their business, but only for a short time. The game won’t progress until they’re all together again.

There should be a rule (or at least an understanding) in place to keep the PCs from scattering to the four corners of the world. That type of situation isn’t fun for anyone, least of all the DM. When your attention is split between the party members, it’s a certainty that some players will be sitting around bored while you deal with the others. Assistant DMs could help in this situation, but D&D works best when a party sticks together.

Offer Plot Hooks, Not Plot Hammers

Some of the worst games I’ve ever played involved DMs who forced their plots on the PCs. I even came up with a sarcastic speech for the antagonists featured in these heavy-handed plots: “Hi! You don’t know me, but you have offended me greatly. No matter what you do, I will make your life a living hell until you figure out exactly how the DM wants you to deal with me. Have a nice day.”

Plot hammers are no fun for imaginative players. Plot hooks, on the other hand, can keep your non-linear game active without forcing the PCs to go down a specific path. When the party enters a new territory, throw them some plot hooks. But be prepared for them to ignore a few. If you want to push a specific plot hook, shower the PCs with consequences when they refuse to get involved.

Did an old woman beg the PCs for help, only to be ignored? Maybe she was warning them of stirrings in the local cemetery. Now the town is overrun by undead, and a necromancer has deposed the local lord. This problem could have been nipped in the bud if only the PCs had taken the bait.

Consequences offer you all kinds of opportunities to generate further plot hooks. They’re also a better choice than forcing PC involvement. Eventually the problem will inconvenience the party enough that they’ll decide on their own to do something about it. Once it’s dealt with, they’ll move on to another part of the world and another set of quests and plot hooks.

Do you run a non-linear campaign, or just have thoughts you’d like to share on the subject? I look forward to seeing your ideas in the comments section!

11 thoughts on “How to Run a Non-Linear Game You Can Be Proud Of”

  1. My goal is to have the campaign “feel” like it is open ended and non-linear, but actually have it much more linear in actuality. That gives the players the feeling that they are in the driver’s seat and allows me to present them with well planned and thought out adventure sequences.
    At the simplest level this means that no matter where they go they will run into a NPC with the information they need. The art in DMing is making that feel like a stroke of luck or (better yet) player brilliance.

  2. When i DM i pretty much just let the PC’s go werever and eventually they find something to do. I have country maps town maps and tons of notes on every one of them so i pretty much always know were he is and what he’ll run into. (of course to make all of my maps and notes it probably took about a month)

  3. i was the same as you apart from with eldar scrolls 3 morowind good times i have moved on to oblivion and its amazing the most detailed game ive ever played but i think the map is actually smaller than morowind even though it look bigger but it dosent matter because instead of nightmareish rocky mountains infested with cliff racers theirs trap lined,bandit occupied dungeons

  4. My group just kicked off a sandbox-style 4e game this weekend, and a lot of fun was had by all. I think my favorite aspect of this style is the potential for free exploration, followed closely by the collaborative spirit of the game. The PCs’ actions help shape the world, for better or for worse. That creates a good deal of player morale and enthusiasm – always good things to have.

  5. I posted this on Gnome Stew…
    Then decided to follow the thread to the original genesis point. Then I figured I’d post here as well.
    The funniest thing is how much this mirors posts I am alos mking on the CBG…

    And Yax, I played Morrowind and still enjoy it, but Oblivion had a stupid levelling mechanic I hated from minute one and could not play anymore.
    I am victim of work, so I am posting late, in the ‘No one will ever read’ area. I’m even posting after Snargash’s latest casting of his ‘Wall of Text’ spell.

    However, I’ve run a sandbox campaign for 25 years. I just finished describing on a CBG post how the orginal players (3 of who are still with Celtricia, a quarter century later) helped create the basal setting notes. So I have some feedback here.

    The first note is that like life and politics, setting design is almost never black and white, but a shade of grey somewhere on a continuum. I bring this up first after reading a few people trying to pigeonhole their settings in the terms of the title. Linear and freeform are two extremes on a continuum, much like freemarket and socialisation. And going completely to one side or the other too far makes an unworkable situation. Understanding where on the continuum you’d place your setting is more useful than trying to pigeonhole it. Celtricia, my burden, my world, is about 88% ‘freeform’, or ‘Sandbox’ style.

    The second point I want to make has to do with the player maturity level necessary. A facet of Sandbox that has been mentioned in terms of gameplay but not foccused on my itself is the PC integration level. In a thematic setting, or a linear one, the PC’s are trying to accomplish something. This is why they are adventuring.
    In a non-linear game, the reason behind why the PC’s are adventuring is often much more the decision of the Players, and must be carefully designed into the game by the GM upon inception.
    The political or social growth potential normally has a lot to do with it, but that is a whole post in and of itself.

    The third major point will probably meet with some dissaproval, but it is part of my whole, “Make the system match the setting, or the setting WILL morph into matching the system.” In this case, I ma saying that combat is a riot and a good time in any setting,. but systems that are combat oriented without a corresponding focus on social skills will become a lot more boring and will end a ’sandbox’ style game more quickly. If Players are trying to socially advance and ingratiate themselves in the political spectrum of a well-realised’ setting, a system that promotes a, “Let’s get back to killing stuff” mentality is a near-critical handicap.

  6. This will be the first time in a long while that I am DMing a non-linear campaign. I’ve pretty much done most of the suggestions here, but it always helps to know that you are going on the right track. I was really bad with railroading on the last campaign, but hopefully I have fixed this for the new campaign. I had all the players start from the same hometown and have thrown out a bunch of adventures for them to pick and choose from. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and I definitely got pretty good with going on the fly.

  7. Elder Scrolls contributed to the downfall of a relationship… And I’m still happy I spent hours playing that game.

    Has anyone played Oblivion? I haven’t had a chance…

  8. @ Nicholas: I think that one of the strengths of 4e is that encounters are fairly quick to build. Just make a list of the monsters, traps, and hazards you want to use, or better yet make some stat cards and include XP costs. Then decide on the difficulty of the encounter(total XP based on party level) to build the encounter. Simple two steps. Even customizing monsters shouldn’t take longer then five minutes before hand. It gets quicker when you get more familiar with the range of powers and abilities available in the monster manual.

  9. I’m running a sandbox campaign using Savage Worlds right now, and it’s great fun for all involved. Particularly for the players — it’s refreshing to break free of the “level-specific encounter” paradigm that defines a lot of D&D gameplay. There’s no such balance in my sandbox setting.

  10. I love running non-linear games but I don’t use D&D to do it, takes too long to plan encounters on the fly.

    My non-linear game of choice is Burning Wheel. What Tommi said about having players write strong goals is built into the system. The GM challenges the players on those goals and rewards the players for going after them. In the interest of full disclosure I should tell you that I am currently applying for a job with Burning Wheel HQ, take it how you will.

  11. I see no point in running anything linear; the story is told, why are we playing around with? Or, rather, what is the fun of writing a story without the input of other people?

    One should note that sandbox play is not the only way to run a non-linear game. Idea of sandbox play is to provide an interesting environment, let players create characters, let them wander around, stumble upon interesting stuff, and probably over time build goals and quests or themselves.

    The other option is to create player characters and then to construct the world so as to best engage those characters. So, if there is, say, an undead-hunting priest as a PC, the GM will be adding plenty of undead there.

    To make sandbox play fun quickly, characters should have strong goals or ethos to start with. As for the alternative, the GM should actively build situations where (s)he does not know how the players will be reacting.

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